Patrick Hamilton

“He was not a major writer,” says Doris Lessing a few lines into her otherwise appreciative introduction to my copy of Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude. This makes me wonder what one has to do to qualify as a ‘major’ writer? I think him quite wonderful, and, having recently reread The Golden Notebook, which I loved back in the seventies, I have a feeling his work may age rather better than Lessing’s own.

I only knowingly came across Hamilton for the first time a few years ago (though in fact I have long been a fan of the Hitchcock film, Rope, which is based on a Patrick Hamilton play.) He was recommended to me by my friend the late Eric Brown, who had a real feeling for British authors of the mid-twentieth century. I promptly devoured Slaves of Solitude, Hangover Square and the trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, and was really blown away by them: the writing, the humanity, the originality. What’s more, when I recommended these books to other people, they either turned out to already be fans, or read the books and were as enthusiastic as I was (except in the case of my wife, to be fair, who is not prone to reckless enthusiasm, and thought Slaves only ‘quite good’). I have recently reread those first two again (or to be more accurate, listened to them this time as audiobooks), and remain very impressed. Slaves is my favourite, but with Hangover Square a very close second, and I particularly liked the third book of the Twenty Thousand Streets trilogy, The Plains of Cement, in which the barmaid Ella has to choose between marrying a horribly unattractive older man who treats her like a child, and depriving her frail mother of a chance to come out of poverty.

I don’t know much more about Hamilton’s background than can be found in his Wikipedia entry here. He had communist sympathies (like the early Lessing), a strong identification with outsiders and the downtrodden (something that does not come over so strongly in the work of the self-assertive, self-consciously visionary Doris Lessing), and he was an alcoholic – in fact you may find you almost get a hangover reading any of the above five novels, just from the sheer number of drinks you have to imaginatively knock back. Both Hangover Square and the first book of the trilogy deal with a doomed and unrequited sexual obsession which is apparently based on his own life experience. He was severely disfigured when he was run over by a car. Apart from being a novelist, he was a successful playwright. His play, Rope, as I mentioned, became a film, Gas Light was filmed twice, and is the origin of the concept of ‘gaslighting’ – something, of course, which is done to the downtrodden to keep them down. (Hangover Square was also made into a film, though from what I gather its central character is a very different proposition from the slow, heavy George Bone of the novel.)

The five novels I’m discussing here are all set in or near London before or during the second world war. This seems to lead some commentators on Hamilton to speak of his work as though it was some kind of historical artifact, a record of a certain kind of life in a certain part of London, at a certain time in history. As I’ve remarked before, this idea of fiction as ‘documenting’ some particular period of history, or place, or area of life, strikes me as rather reductive. The specificity of place and time certainly give these books their distinctive colour, but what makes them great is that they speak to things we all experience.

But Hamilton certainly is very good at evoking place and atmosphere – see for example the account of a commuter train arriving in a suburban terminus that begins Slaves, and those endless drinking bouts in pubs that make you slightly queasy just to read about them. He is equally good at writing about interior states, and especially about obsession and addiction, to which of course he was not a stranger. He writes beautiful, functional, unfussy descriptive prose. There is absolutely no showing off (a quality, incidentally, that reminds me of the personality of my friend Eric).

In all these books, there are hard, narcissistic, self-obsessed people, who are cruel to those they see as weaker than themselves, and use others without ever really seeing them – and who typically nurture fascistic fantasies: examples are Vicki and the truly ghastly Mr Thwaite in Slaves, and Netta in Hangover Square. There are quiet, mild, rather lost characters who don’t know how to assert themselves in the world. Miss Roach, the main character in Slaves, is one such, a 39-year-old single woman, whose first name we don’t even learn until late in the book: appallingly lonely, living during the blitz in a genteel lodging house with a bunch of much older people in a town outside London. George Bone (or at any rate George Bone when in his right mind) is another: lumpish, clueless, hopelessly pursuing a beautiful but heartless and empty woman in a seedy world of lazy, fascistic, snobbish drunks. Ella, the barmaid in the trilogy is another again. Finally, there are a number of characters who manage to be both competent at life and non-egotistical. In Hangover Square, George’s friend John Littlejohn is one of these. He sees George has made a bit of a mess of his life, and tries to help. (Having been at certain points in my younger days, one of those lost, unassertive outsiders myself, I can vouch for the extraordinary power of small acts of kindness from such people, who simply see you as a fellow human being, and not as the hopeless failure you imagine yourself to be, because that’s how you are indeed seen by other, colder, more status-conscious people.)

Slaves and Hangover Square are both beautifully structured and paced. What makes the pacing particularly impressive is the fact that comparatively little actually happens. In Slaves, Miss Roach is simultaneously bullied and bored silly by Mr Thwaites over the dinner table in her boarding house (his ghastliness is quite funny, if you can get past just how ghastly it is), she is taken out for drinks by an apparently benign but ‘inconsequent’ American officer who never makes his intentions clear, she is let down by her manipulative friend Vicki, she has a row with Thwaites, and finally she experiences a very small but very touching moment of redemption, though certainly not a happy ever after – and that’s it! In Hangover Square, George Bone basically hangs out in Earl’s Court and Brighton, mostly with either the same group of nasty people who treat him like rubbish, but occasionally with nice people who, to his surprise and bewilderment, like him for himself. Throughout the book, he zigzags between self-destruction and redemption, until his intermittent mental fogs, when he moves through the world in a kind of trance, finally overcome him. But however narrow and local and specific the canvas, the picture really is of a struggle between good and evil -or between life and a kind of living death- which is as relevant to our time, or I imagine any time, as it was to the time the books were written.

(The later ‘Gorse’ trilogy is a very different proposition, with one of those cruel, ruthless figures in the driving seat throughout. It’s probably not the one to start with.)

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